Friday, March 15, 2019

Greta Thunberg, Thanks for Getting Me Off My Lazy Butt

I don't consider myself an activist. I am way too hypocritical and impure for that. I don't typically participate in direct action or marches. It's really not the arena I feel I have the most to offer. Also, I don't like the earnestness, the black-and-white rhetoric, and us-vs.-them stuff, and the chest-pounding spectacle of moral superiority.

Through my research on environmental justice, the environmental movement, and environmental politics over the past 20 years as a scholar, I would never have said that my work slipped into anything resembling "activism." Advocacy, yes, because I would always conclude things like "we should stop doing X, and start doing Y to protect human and environmental wellbeing," or whatever. But a march? No thank you.

And I don't really like high-schoolers. Nothing against any of them individually, but high school was not a good time in my life, and even seeing high schools triggers me a bit.  I can do college students, barely, because at least they want to be there, and at least I can tailor my curriculum to their passions. They are ostensibly adults, so even on a high-hormone, poorly-developed pre-frontal cortex day, this pretense of maturity helps elevate the tone of our interactions.

So how did I end up speaking for the 30 or so Eureka high school students for today's Youth Climate Strike?

My daughter and friend school striking with us at the Youth Climate March

Sure, that's not a lot of people. But there was also once a time when Greta Thunberg was not a lot of people either.

What a march does is turns one person into thirty people into tens of thousands of people, right before your eyes, in the flesh, across the planet.

It counteracts all the ways that capitalism would have us think of ourselves as individuals, operating in our bubbles, tiny nobodies with no power to do anything against the monstrous beast of climate change.  Showing up is not my thing.  But showing up today because I couldn't see the grey area in the issue of young people really freaking out about the planet they will be inheriting, showed me that the showing up is a bolt of energy to everybody around you. It's also just the beginning, a symbol of what's to come. When you surround yourself with people working on solutions, hope is inevitable. As Greta Thunberg might say, you can't wait around to feel hopeful before you act. Action brings hope. 

I'm not likely to show up to a lot of marches or other showing up opportunities, but on occasion, especially when I'm offered a chance to, even in a small way bolster youth passion and help steer the narrative a bit as a speaker, I just gotta go.

Maybe it's the urgency of the situation, maybe it's the certainty of issues, maybe I'm getting older and feel like I have less time to dawdle over grey areas (though that's generally where you'll still find me), maybe it's having kids, maybe it's the Facebook algorithms. But I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I've become a bit of a climate justice advocate. I still don't like the mainstream environmental stance on climate change--it's all too much about science and facts and ice caps--and I really don't like the climate movement's inability to think about racial justice, but I am convinced that the movement is moving in the right directions. It's getting more intersectional, more savvy about identity politics, class, and justice, and more aware of how climate change is not about wilderness and rock-climbing, it's about urban infrastructure, access to resources, distribution of pollutants, and both human and natural resource exploitation. And guess who's fixing the climate movement to figure all this out? KIDS.

I'm blown away by the Sunrise Movement's language about social justice. I'm blown away by even what I'm seeing with the Green New Deal. It may not acknowledge colonialism, and it may not fully get the grassroots aspects of climate justice, but it really soothes my soul that this proposal is getting so much air time, and that it seeks to connect issues of social structure, class, race, geography, and justice with the environmental crisis. That's a revelation.

In the past, I would have said, it's not good enough. I would have put on my academic hat and criticized it line by line. I probably would have even called it oppressive, even bad for the environment. I would have argued that if mainstream politicians are backing it, then by definition it can't be good enough. My scholarship was perhaps more "radical" in my early days.

In the past, I would have poo-poo'ed marches as mere performances of self-righteousness. And of course, they don't themselves change anything. That is always the problem with getting people to show up for things-- showing up itself never changes anything, it just offers a space for people to vent about how bad things are.  Who wants that? Not me. I'm already overwhelmed with thinking about how bad things are. I can't stand the thought of amplifying my inner voice by hanging out with others who feel the same way.

But I'm starting to get that marches can offer a crucial ingredient for social change. That's why they're called an "action," even though I've often disagreed with that characterization. Knowing you are not alone in your frustrations and fears, and that you can huddle up with this group before you charge onto the field, creates a kind of awareness of collectivity that I have only recently begun to study. It turns out that this "infrastructure" of collective resilience and solidarity is really important. Researchers are showing that it is more valuable dollar for dollar to repairing communities in the face of climate disruption than what we spend on improved dykes, repaired highways, and new buildings.

That juice you feel when you realize you're not alone? That's not just warm fuzzies, that's the most important ingredient for climate adaptation.

I was amazed the high schoolers didn't just use the march as an opportunity to ditch class. I am amazed they were thinking passionately about the fate of the planet. I am amazed that they are willing to respond to parents and critics who say they should be working out these problems in the classroom by saying that the classroom isn't doing enough, and that it will be too late when those solutions come to pass.*

I am just in total awe that the youth climate movement is taking the narrative and the politics in their own hands.  Kudos to Stella Saba, Nigella Baur, and the high school students from Arcata and Eureka who had the courage to face climate change, their futures, and maybe even their parents, in the face. It feels like change is a'coming.

*Don't get me wrong, as a professor, I want students showing up. But it's ALWAYS a struggle. My students can barely stand being in class while the world burns and so much suffering is going on. I get it: though I disagree, I can see why students feel the classroom doesn't always feel like the place where solutions will emerge.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

I'm co-hosting a podcast, "Big Planet, Big Feels"

In thinking about writing Coming of Age at the End of the World: An Existential Toolkit for the Climate Generation, I wanted to interview a lot of brilliant people. Then I thought, why not record them and make a podcast so their ideas can be more easily shared? 

I was lucky enough to find someone who shared my enthusiasm, and who wanted to learn to sound edit. One of my students who graduated a few years ago, Madi Whaley, braved the collaboration and has not only proved to be brilliant at yet another set of tasks, but also found some fabulous music and art, and made the website, and... and...

Our hope was to have some levity around and provide some new ways of thinking about the heavy feelings people have about climate change and environmental issues. It's interview-based, and we expect to have one season of about 12 episodes.

Enjoy Big Planet, Big Feels.  It's rough, and our learning curve is steep, so forgive the errors. But we're just so excited to journey into this new medium!

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Kavanaugh, Climate Grief, and Babies

There have been a spate of news articles of late that comment on the fact that millennials are choosing not to have children because of climate change.

Image result for millennials not having kids

Self-regulating to control population growth for the sake of the planet is not a new concept.  One need only to Google "overpopulation" to learn all about how the planet's woes can be solved by what you do with your uterus. Please, let's not pretend that vaginas have nothing to do with environmental politics.

As a feminist who also cares about the environment, I, too, have struggled with the question about whether I should reproduce and become one of those dreaded "breeders." I've read, and even published on, the complicated dilemma of being an environmentalist and a mother. Having a child is the worst thing you can do to supersize your ecological footprint. Environmentalists rage over whether having kids is a deal-breaker, or whether those who advocate for reproductive justice (often women, and often women of color), and those who advocate for the environment (often white people, and often men) need to play better together. This post is not about whether having kids is good for the environment, and I'm definitely not interested in telling anybody what to do with their uterus.

I won't rehash these debates here, but they serve to show how the new discussion about abstaining from reproducing is so different. The new argument is not about whether you'll add another person to an already burdened ecosystem.  It's easy to see why that goal might seem lofty and only appealing to elites. No, now it's about whether you can handle the grief of bringing people into the world who will experience it dying. That's a whole different existential question, if you ask me.

I'm of a generation that had children in the transition between these two rationales. By the time I had my second child, in 2014, I had stuck my feminist finger up at the populationist Malthusian fascists, but was fully immersed in a bad case of eco-grief.

Why did I have a second child? Total emotional and cognitive dissonance is my answer. But I can assure you that not a day goes by when I don't agonize about the world my children will grow up in, and I'm not just talking about politics. I mean the extinctions, the loss of beauty, the spread of toxins, cancer, and pathogens, and the geopolitical insecurity (and fear and nationalism it spawns) that climate change is already putting into motion. Forget polar bears, I cry regularly for the world their generation will inherit.

As couples of all sexualities and gender identities enter that time of life when they're trying to figure out whether they want to do that old-fashioned thing of "settling down and having kids", many of them are saying "hell no" in order avoid the guilt and grief of voluntarily foisting the next hideous 50 years of Anthropocene hell on their offspring.

But, I dare say, their abstention isn't just about the environment or love of their children. It's also a middle finger to the heteronormative, nuclear family fantasy. For many hetero women, the stakes are are high. In general, these women still do the vast majority of domestic labor, which goes up exponentially when you add kids. In general, these women are still paid 75 cents to a man's dollar, and even less for women of color. As a professor, I'm sure my students are watching me juggle home life and a career-- a great privilege, I concede!-- and thinking, "hell no. Not for me."

And frankly, I support them, especially my female-identified students. I'm sure that I shock them when I brazenly provoke them to imagine not having children, or at least doing so with eyes wide open about the costs. As someone who may appear to be a model for "having it all," and as someone who is fairly high-functioning, I may be hard to believe when I say I find my "life-balance" borderline impossible, and share the real stories of how my mental, physical, and marital health have taken some bad hits. Why would I wish this on anybody? I want to send alerts to future me-types from this side of the line, saying "don't come this way, too many booby traps!"

I'm not trying to be ungrateful. I just wish someone had sent me the memo when I was young that I could fulfill my maternal destiny by birthing many loves*-- books, intellectual work in the world, mentoring students, friendships, supporting my parents and other family members, the list goes on and on-- and not just actual babies.

Today, my partner asked me, "how will we tell our girls that they don't need to have kids?"

I've been rehearsing that answer in candid conversations with my students for years.  Here's what I said to my partner, without even thinking about it.

Let's tell them at an early age that their self-worth is not dependent upon others' views of them.

Let's tell them that their futures can include any number of fates that don't entail parenting (I never start any sentence with "when you grow up and have your own kids, you'll...").

Let's tell them that their power in the world is not derived from who they're related to ("someone's mother, daughter, sister") but from her own solo self.

Let's tell them that pleasing other people --be they potential partners, children, or their own parents--is not the only thing that will define their social value.

Sure, you can tell your daughters about the coral reefs and the rising sea levels, and fear-monger about climate refugees and the coming anarchy. Heck, try giving them a copy of The Population Bomb! for their 13th birthday.  But personally, as a feminist, I like to think that their empowerment as women is tied to the liberation of others, including other species, and that it doesn't require the suppression of their or anybody else's reproductive rights.

I may have made a different choice by marrying a cis-man and having kids, and it may seem I'm being hypocritical by saying these things. I know I'm walking on eggshells here, because I don't want to speak for all women, nor all hetero/nuclear family moms. And I know that my issues reflect my relative socioeconomic and racial privilege. I know these are not every woman's issues, for sure. I am also extremely grateful for my life and have no regrets. And obviously, as if it needs to be said, I love my kids. I wouldn't want to impose my choice to have kids on anyone else, just as I can understand why some people would disagree with me that having kids is still really oppressive for many American women. It's both/and. Having kids can be awesome, and also can be a personal journey through patriarchy. Furthermore, people who have kids sometimes care more about the future of the environment than they did before (this was certainly the case for me, but then of course having kids increased my footprint by ridiculous levels), but that doesn't mean that people without kids are likely to care less, and all of this is totally shaped by cultural upbringing, class, etc. etc. I concede all these eggshells I know I'm walking on. My arguments here admittedly are shaped by my perspective of being a white, hetero, cis, PhD-wielding, American woman.

All that said, when I was young, I did not get the message that I could be a whole and loved person, without children. It's taken having kids and navigating the brutal demands of work and domestic life in a heteronormative context for me to realize that "having it all" (kids+ career) isn't the only way for women to fulfill their purposes in the world. Only as I mature into mid-life do I realize that I have value as a human being outside of my ability to reproduce, parent, support a partner, and fulfill this dream of normalcy.

To me, the news that young people are thinking about not having kids is both tragic and fabulous. I am happy for them that they'll never go through watching their kids realize how bad things are, that they'll never feel that guilt and heartbreak. I also imagine all these women liberated to pursue their myriad loves-- first and foremost, themselves. I see all this patriarchy loosen its grip, because having children still so seriously constrains women's voices, choices, and ability to chart their own course.
But of course, I see the tragedy too: I wouldn't want my reproductive choices to be influenced by how much carbon will be in the air by the time my kids are adults. So I am sad for them, even as I'm giddy about what it will mean for rearranging sexual power relations. What will happen to all these things when fewer women are involved in "traditional" marital relations, having fewer children, and start to see their sexual and political identities in all these new ways? Oh my!

Whenever I think about young women making decisions about having kids, I don't just think about the planet, or their kids' potential future eco-grief. I think about young women's self-worth being measured by other things, things of their own determination, things outside the conventional nuclear arrangement--an arrangement that is frankly neither pro-environment nor pro-woman. I think of my girls living different childhoods than I lived, where their sense of self-worth eclipses what men think of them, and where their choice to potentially not have children won't feel like the same loss for them as it would have for me.

Like many of you, I am despairing about what I'm watching these past few days about Brett Kavanaugh's bid for the Supreme Court. As an environmental studies professor, as a feminist, and as a mother, I can't separate my desire to see ecological doom averted from my desire to see the next generation of women redefine the contracts of partnerhood, domestic life, and sexual power.  Gender relations are undergoing tectonic shifts right now. My hope is that both the planet and women will gain much from all these changes.


*Yeah, I am referring to Rebecca Solnit again. Her book, The Mother of All Questions, is inspiring to me, but I can't wait for the book that tells me how to do what she's doing, and also have kids. I guess that's the point-- it's still really hard to do both.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Love Letter to the Resistance

Dear Resistance Movement,

I love you. The thought of you sometimes makes me choke up with pride. You are like a big down comforter. Just knowing you're there makes me feel warm. Before I met you, I thought I was alone. I didn't think the word "community" applied to anything in my life. Now, I feel like one small but important node in a vast spiderweb, an invisible force holding the world together, together. Thank you for manifesting yourself. You, the blessed unrest, my tribe, are the silver lining.

All loves also entail friction. I want you to be your best self. And, I can't be with you all the time.

45 isn't the hurricane you think he is; he's just the weathervane.  Melania's jacket is abhorrent, but it's not that she doesn't care. She's mad at him too.  In what universe is that jacket a feminist statement? Try to get your head there. Female anger emerges as a whack-a-mole.

Image result for melania anger
Don't get me wrong. I am not apologizing for that shit. But look at her. She's pissed.

If the evidence results in revealing that the emperor has no clothes, what then? Will we be satisfied? Will our triumphant moment of justice make everything OK?

No. America has been ripped open, and with the pump of each day's news, it bleeds life out. Focusing on those with political power is like wrangling with telltales. Holding the flimsy strands of fabric in the place you want them won't change the direction of the wind.

And we will tire of the battle. Arms aching, teeth gritted, we'll burn a fuse with all that anger directed at flaccid nothingness.

The real work is tending to the culture wars. Tribalism is everywhere, dividing, dividing, dividing. Disguised as solidarity, we build ourselves up by what we're against, leeching our life-force out, day by day.

Image result for fixing tribalism in america

Before 2016, I thought that having more arguments, evidence, and facts in my back pocket was the way to move the dial of our culture in the directions I wanted. Likewise, as a teacher, I had thought my role was to fill students with knowledge to support positions and claims, arm them with reason and teach them how to win debates.

Has this worked in my most intimate relationships? No. Fifteen years into my marriage, I am finally learning that winning arguments and locating blame may feel temporarily good, but acts like herbicide in a garden. Only one thing can grow under the reign of repeated exposure--resentful victimhood.  Our own relationships reveal this truth to us.

Beware the us-them mindset; the other side entrenches further too. Utopia isn't around the corner of a few changed offices.  Silencing the other side by winning arguments and races can not remain the holy grail of your political energies. When my lover argues me into a speechless corner, my resentment finds other outlets. My heart and mind are not changed. Victimhood becomes fuel for other fights.

I would like the weathervanes and telltales to indicate a different wind, for sure. I love you, tribe, for figuring out multi-issue politics, intersectionality, and strategic coalition-building. I love you for all you do. I worry for your longevity, and I worry about what happens to the country when you win.

If you don't see me at the next march, it's not because I don't love you.  I'm wrestling the wind, not the weathervane.


Friday, July 6, 2018

Teaching, Climate Change, and Eco-Grief: Recent Talks

I have been excited, nervous, and honored to give a few talks this past year on eco-grief, climate change, and teaching undergrads in the Anthropocene.  I thought I'd collect links to them in one place.

  • December 2017 University of Washington. Thanks to the Interdisciplinary Anthropocene Cluster for inviting me. The talk is available on You Tube, here.

  • February, 2018. "My Favorite Lecture" series, Plaza Grill, Arcata, CA.  Thanks so much to Mike Dronkers for the incredible editing and organizing work to make this sound so good. Available as podcast here.

    Image result for sarah ray ucsb
  • March 2018, Swarthmore College (my alma mater). Thanks to one of my idols, Giovanna Di Chiro, who I'm so grateful to for inviting me there. It was lovely to catch up with my religious studies professors from my time as an undergrad, Mark Wallace and Steve Hopkins. The audio and transcription are available here.

  • June, 2018, University of California Santa Barbara. Thanks to John Foran for inviting me to join the Environmental Justice/Climate Justice working group for inviting me.  

Image result for affective ecocriticisms

A new book coming out Fall 2018, Affective Ecocriticism, edited by Jennifer Ladino and Kyle Bladow, features the only published article-length version of this work, but I'm currently developing these ideas into a book project. 

Sunday, July 1, 2018

My Meditation Class Got Hijacked by Politics

I have been attending a “mindfulness meditation” class on Mondays recently. Last Monday, the teacher brought up the horror weighing heavily on our minds, of the separation of families along the southern border. Our teacher raised the question, what does the practice of meditation have to do with injustice in the world? 

Although I feel like I've been thinking about this question forever, in my midlife, I find my thoughts about this are changing. I used to agree with the conclusions of my teacher--that the whole point of spirituality is to open us to non-harming loving kindness, which leads us to action in the world. She quoted Gandhi a few times, who said, in essence, "those who think spirituality has nothing to do with politics don't know shit about spirituality." 

I remember my Religious Studies major in college, for which I took classes like "Religious Belief and Moral Action," and "The Problem of Religion."  These classes were nearly entirely all about how different religions have theorized the relationship between political action and spirituality. I used to think that any spiritual life one could lead would be narcissistic if not connected to politics. Chalk this all up to my own Quaker background; the Quakers are nuts for using religion to rationalize progressive social justice agendas.

But over time, my thoughts have changed on this. For one, I've become much more cynical about using religion or "morals" or "spirituality" to justify any political agenda--on the political right and the political left.

But what I really want to write about here is something else that bugged me about meditation class last week. 

One of the reasons I stopped attending Quaker meeting is because I don't want my spiritual spaces coopted by political proselytizing. Which isn't to say that spirituality has nothing to do with politics. It just rubs me as fundamentally devious to sneak in political agendas while people are contemplating the meaning of life. It's manipulative. 
Image result for quakers and politics

Also, are Buddhism and Quakerism only available to liberals? That can't be right.

The small-mindedness of thinking that these spiritual approaches must inherently lead to a certain political bent is troubling to me. It can't be that if you're X religion, then your politics must therefore be Y. Doesn't this just add to the problem of tribalism we're all being crushed by right now?  Isn't this at the very core of what led to what's happening on the border?

In addition to not liking to have my spiritual life hijacked in favor of anybody else's politics, even if they're in line with my own, I bristled at being told, once again, that if I really believed in loving kindness, or God, or whatever, I would do more things. 

My teacher's lecture seemed to assume that everybody in the room was so privileged that they must not actually do political or social justice work in their lives. If they were in that room, then they must not be already engaged enough. This assumption just reinforced my own anti-meditation bias. I am sure I have avoided pursuing a spiritual life not just because I have no time, but because I have thought of it as privileged, as a luxury only people who are not paying enough attention to the apocalypse we're experiencing would care to seek. 

However, the whole reason I ended up in that mindfulness meditation class is because I am suffering from burnout of doing too many things, and I've come around to thinking that a spiritual life may in fact not just be necessary for recovering, but also for keeping myself resourced for a lifetime of this work.  

After the 2016 election, I turned up the volume of doing more things even more, thinking I wasn't already doing enough. I have turned to mindfulness and meditation precisely to recover, to find rest, to re-source myself so that I can figure out how to keep working for social justice without depleting myself. 

My teacher's conclusion that we should all support organizations more, call our congresspeople more, reach out to our neighbors more, is all fine and well, but what I want to hear about is the value of meditation to keeping up one's reserves for the long haul of this work. 

I agree with her that spirituality should not be an escape from politics. Meditation is not only a navel-gazing exercise. But I crave a much more sophisticated, complex lecture on how one's own spiritual vitality is necessary for sustained engagement in the world--no matter what that engagement looks like. It may be calling politicians, but it may be what we do every day for our jobs, then come home and do with our families. 

Adding more for us to do on top of our first and second shifts is precisely what is not needed. And fueling the divisions between "us and them"-- what Tara Brach in her most recent podcast calls "unreal othering"--is not what I want from my spiritual life or teachers. 

It's not that I want an escape from politics; I want an alternative path of action not driven by anger, fear, and negativity about people and actions I feel powerless to do anything about, and a practice of right action and right intention that helps me focus on the realms I do have control over.  

I'm feeling more like Audre Lorde than Gandhi right now.

Image result for audre lorde self-care

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Myth of the Selfish Woman

I've been thinking a lot lately about the paradoxical feelings of motherhood, like selfish vs. sacrificing, and love for others vs. loss of self.  We are all supposed to have stable, monolithic feelings about mothering, and if we dare veer from that one acceptable feeling-- unconditional, self-sacrificing love-- then the world seems to fall apart.

Forget adultery. In this age, it seems the worst thing a woman can do is be Selfish, branded with the scarlet letter S in a world that relies on women seeing their only value in terms of the love they give others. Indeed, the root of "martyr" is of course, mother.

So many women I know feel ashamed to share that they feel anything negative about mothering, as if those negative feelings would somehow counteract or negate the positive they also feel. They are to feel complete and fulfilled by manifesting their destiny as mothers, and when they express doubt or resistance to this notion of motherhood, they're damned.

Can't we feel opposing things equally and simultaneously? Doubt and certainty? Fear and adoration? Anguish and intimacy?  Can we not desire intimacy with our own selves as much as we desire intimacy with those around us?  Why is it so abhorrent to think of mothers as as much internal as they are external in their attentions?

The problem with this approach to mothers is that it actually hurts all women, not to mention the kids and the partners and everybody else around them.  This expectation that women should feel ultimate fulfillment and love by mothering is destructive for mothers and non-mothers alike.  It creates a situation where women who choose to mother are shocked to find they miss themselves and struggle for years to figure out how to find themselves again--all in isolation because of the shame they feel for daring to have any other feelings besides love. It makes women who do not mother-- for whatever reasons, intentional or not-- subject to suspicion.  Rebecca Solnit writes about this in her book, The Mother of All Questions (which of course is, "why did you choose not to have kids?"), for example.  It marks women who want but can't have, or who lost, children as walking embodiments of Tragedy.

The lack of open discussion about the complexity of women's feelings about themselves and about their desires or lack thereof to procreate, and stigmatizing all feelings non-loving around motherhood,  eats away at us.

I see so many of my mother friends suffer from this. Many of our partners add to the shame. And it's easy to see why. The notion that a mother would have complex feelings about motherhood is quite a threat. If mothering isn't totally fulfilling to my partner, will she leave us? Have an affair? Damage the children for life? I have yet to meet a mother who feels her partner can allow the space for negative feelings about mothering. That pressure, too, especially from one's most intimate partner and supporter, amplifies the sense of isolation and shame tenfold.

I feel both fully fulfilled in some profound existential way by the experience of having and raising kids. And I am also feel profoundly claustrophobic because of the inescapability of the daily demands on me, and anxious about the alternative paths I'd also like to be exploring.

It's truly a practice in surrender, and even if there is something appealing about this assault on my desiring ego in a kind of Buddhist way, I don't like it.  I feel both daily explosions of love for my kids and family life, and also daily pangs of resentment about the obligations they put on me. I feel both intense desire to spend more time with my kids and also an intense desire to do a million other things--alone-- that I feel I was put on the planet to do.

It's no surprise to me at all, given the current arrangement of American family life, where there is no village to help me raise my kids, that many women would choose not to have children.  Structurally, it's hard to imagine mothering and also pursuing any other thing fully, except perhaps in sequence (phase two of life = raising kids, phase three = becoming a monk, running for president, starting your own commune, what have you).

These "other loves" as Solnit writes about them, are not compatible with having children.  Her book is all about either/or: women who don't have children devote their loves elsewhere (which is awesome), while women who have children devote their love to their children.  So much for "having it all," right?  I certainly think of myself as devoting myself in many directions, but have been called on multiple occasions,  "selfish", implicitly or explicitly, for doing so.

The ways that married and parenting life curtails self-actualization are a constant source of angst for me.  And yes, perhaps some really brilliant women can self-actualize while mothering.  Every moment with my kids is heavy, full of life, vitality, and profound sense of immediacy and intention.  I also love that, even as I want to focus that way on other things too.  These bonds are both oppressive and fulfilling. Isn't this the paradox of relation?

Perhaps when we accept all the feelings, normalize all the feelings so mothers and non-mothers alike feel no shame or isolation in their myriad devotions, then maybe mothers can find the sacred in the daily grind of life with kids, and see their pursuit of fulfillment as tied to that of non-mothers.

There are so many people and places to devote one's self to, it needn't always be one's children. We can make kin in so many ways, as feminist writer Donna Haraway would have it. We should also be able to retract into our own selves, turn that love inward, and replenish our reserves on occasion, without thinking we're being selfish by doing so.

When we start to see that all of our pursuits are admirable, not selfish, we know we're getting close. Because it's so easy as a woman to internalize the message that our purpose is to please others-- this message is everywhere.  And I don't want my daughters to receive this message, not the least of all from the life I model for them as their mother and as a woman with many other loves. Any woman who can transcend that message deserves a medal, not the scarlet letter S.
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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Peace of Daily Things: Revising Wendell Berry for Ecofeminist Grief

I have often loved and taught Wendell Berry's poem, "The Peace of Wild Things," but struggle to really allow myself to take solace in it.

Given my recent dive into grief (see previous post, "The Vacuum"), I have continued to think about Berry's poem.

What bothers me about it is his use of nature as a crutch.  Someone I know and love often tells me that ultimately, the reason they can't dig religion is because of using God as a "crutch." But isn't Berry using nature as a crutch in this poem, in the same way? Manufacturing some idea of it, such that its sole purpose is to comfort a very human feeling of grief?  Honestly, I don't see the difference between God and Nature in so many claims.  Nature has taken over for God in a secular time, among my scientist and nature-loving friends and colleagues.

I'm not going to spend any more time right now on that issue, but would like to propose that Berry's poem doesn't work for someone like me, whose justice and feminist-oriented views of nature, much less grief, don't quite work the same way. I've been thinking about it a lot recently, and would like to offer this revision of Berry's poem, to suggest a feminist, perhaps overly domestic version that doesn't rely on an idea of nature as a thing "out there".

Rather, I hope this rings a Buddhist bell for you, regardless of the focus on motherhood, in terms of how grief has affected my sense of "the now" and my love of the things I've already spent so much effort cultivating.


When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
In fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down next to them
Rest in the beauty of their breathing, while the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of daily things
That do not tax their lives with future and past
Or grief. I come into the presence of the texture of my daughter’s hair.
And I feel next to me the blinding purpose of warm skin
Content in our dark contact. For a time
I rest in the grace of Thou, and am not alone.


If it helps to be reminded of Berry's poem:


When despair for the world grows in me
 and I wake in the night at the least sound
 in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
 I go and lie down where the wood drake
 rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
 I come into the peace of wild things
 who do not tax their lives with forethought
 of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
 And I feel above me the day-blind stars
 waiting with their light. For a time
 I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.


I wanted to challenge Berry's notion of nature as liberating us from the human. I wanted to challenge his notion of nature as a solace from the pain of daily life. I wanted to challenge his notion of the detachedness of nature from the human, and the notion of nature as peaceful, "still" like water, or feeding beautifully, as a heron would.  These projections of nature are inconsistent with my grief, and they are certainly inconsistent with the solace I find in my own ideas of nature.

In grief, I have found that I find solace in the mundane, in the comforts of daily life, in the gratitude of knowing there is so much love connecting me to things around me, especially my kids and immediate family. I don't need nature for that, but nature does help me focus on those things, sometimes. And nature is IN those things, always. 

This exercise of rewriting in the mode of another author reminds me of an exercise I'll never forget from seventh grade-- it was called "Imitation."  We would be given pieces of literature and asked to fill in the blanks to create similar structures but with our own images and ideas. Rewriting Berry allowed me to take HIM out of the poem, and leverage this sentiment and power of his poem for my own purposes.  

I can't write a poem about grief right now, but I can meditate on his.  

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Vacuum

I'm trying to get my head around the fact that on April 11, 2018, my gorgeous, capable, creative, and pregnant step-niece, mother of three young children, hanged herself.

My head is cracking open at the mental exercise of trying to grasp this information. My rudimentary understanding of mental health-as-illness, as opposed to a matter of will power or choice, is barely a consolation. My brain hurts, my heart hurts, my throat hurts, my womb hurts.

Her suicide feels like an asteroid has ripped a hole in the atmosphere, leaving everybody who knew her gaping open in agony. It's like what happens in airplanes when their windows rip out and everything inside gets torn to shreds in the nothingness that roars through. With great sorrow, I imagine her children and husband like passengers in the airplane, ripped out the windows of the sweet, beautiful life she painstakingly created for them. All of a sudden, even oxygen feels like a luxury. The hole left behind is heavy, irrefutable, dark, and empty.

Despite a challenging childhood, thin on many forms of crucial support, she built a dream life for herself, of which I was frequently envious. She mindfully manifested the world we could only dream of for her. She was extraordinarily crafty, making aesthetic DIY projects out of free items on Craigslist, creating a labyrinth of raised garden beds producing vegetables, flowers, and blueberries, and making fairy houses through the woods with her kids.  She adopted animals and friends into her life, generously giving of her energy to lots of living things that needed nurturance.

I know all mothers love their children, but she made mothering a mission. She planted so many seeds in the world, despite having been deprived of essential nutrients in her own childhood. Did she keep filling up the world with love and beauty in order to fill a hole inside herself? How could all that love and creativity be only directed outward, and not toward filling her own emptiness?

She and I weren't very close. But she was one of the most important people to somebody with whom I am very close-- my stepmother. Their relationship had its ups and downs, to be sure, but nobody held a firmer place in my stepmother's heart than this young woman. My stepmother did her best to be a loving, stable force for her, and to perhaps fill her own holes through that relationship. They had many reasons to hold tightly to each other.
Image result for andrew wyeth maine art
I'm thinking a lot recently of Andrew Wyeth's hauntingly beautiful Maine images. As I look at "Her Room", I imagine my step-niece there. I gather she saw Maine as her escape from suffering. I imagine her in a room like this right now, at peace.
At the memorial service last week, at least 150 friends and family descended on my step-niece's idyllic northern California home. Her little children and her husband, having slept elsewhere for the previous week, came back to the garden she had spent the past several years building, came back to the critters and tiny-house dwellers on their property--friends from high school and from the ever-spiraling-out rhizome of a community my step-niece cultivated--and to the blueberries just ripening on the spring bushes.

In a poignant gesture of normalcy, the little girls squealed with delight at the sight of the first green, tiny blueberry of the season, which had come into being during their week of absence, during the week since their mother had been found. I can't decide if the marching on of nature is an insult or a comfort. How can they keep growing without her?

Image result for caterpillar hill blueberry field
Anybody who knows my step-niece knows that her love of blueberries started in Maine. These are blueberry fields in autumn, a view from Caterpillar Hill looking at the bridge to Little Deer Isle, where she spent a month each summer with my dad and stepmom. Despite her seemingly idyllic California life, she had bought a house in Stonington and was planning to move there soon.

Then I try to think of all the things she put into the world-- babies, blueberries, beauty-- and take some small comfort in knowing that although the vacuum is still tearing through the lives of those she left behind, so much of the love she created will come into being for years to come.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Do You Suffer from Eco-Despair? Seek Critical Thinking Treatment Right Away

Warning: the use of humor in the following post may upset you even more.  However, humor is key to surviving the apocalypse.  I know, you may worry that if you're laughing, people will think you're not taking shit seriously enough.  Laughter, after all, is a sign that you have enough privilege to not be weighed down by all. the. shit.  Take a page from some of the world's greatest satirists, though, and take this use of humor as an invitation to get meta.  Trust me, getting meta is subversive, radical, and utterly world-making.

Are you afraid of the end of the world?  Do you mourn the loss of coral reefs, polar bears, krill, oxygen, seasons, and other miracles of nature?  Is the permafrost under your house melting?  Have you given up the hopes of having children, because, hey, what's the point?  Are you thinking of taking the eco-mantra "leave no trace" to nihilistic levels of self-erasure?  Do you feel helpless in the face of a faceless enemy?  Are you feeling guilty because you, as an American, are the most likely to have created all these problems?  Do you feel impotent and powerless because practical solutions are, let's just admit it, never gonna happen?

If this sounds like you, you may be suffering from eco-despair.  Without proper treatment, eco-despair can quickly lapse into apocalypse fatigue.  Once apocalypse fatigue sets in, you're not likely to give a shit anymore.  Do something before it's too late.  

Nothing works better to build your immunity against eco-despair than Zoloft.  Just kidding.  Neoliberalism almost bought me out.  What I meant to say was that nothing works better to build your immunity against eco-despair than critical thinking.  

Try the following forms of critical thinking, and see how you feel upon a regular dose of using your noodle:

1.  Understanding the architecture of stories about climate change.  A cultural analysis of narratives shows that 80% of news and mainstream media frame the problem of climate change using apocalyptic tropes.  There's this whole field called "negative news bias". Look it up.  The media we consume wants us to feel awful.   Psychological research shows that doom-and-gloom narratives inspire emotions of guilt and fear in audiences-- emotions that have been shown to be passive.  So it's no wonder that, on a diet of such news, people disconnect or even deny climate change.  Psychology + media analysis proves that we need to get meta about our media.

2.  Understanding that the neoliberal structure of American history wants us to feel we are individuals, wonderful unique creatures, that are disconnected from history, each other, the oppressive structures of family, culture, and tradition, etc.  While there is so much to love about this impulse (I'm from California so I love pretending that nobody existed before me, and that I'm the most important person on earth), the myth of individualism also keeps us down.  Nothing awesome that we love ever happened by the efforts of any single person alone.  No historical triumph of progress over depravity ever occurred because of any one human.  If we're going to get out of the apocalypse, it'll be because we are part of a collective, what Paul Hawken calls the "blessed unrest."  Tune in to each other.  Cultivate collectivity and relation.  It's all that matters.  I'm serious!  Imagine the world does blow up.  Don't you want to be with your peeps?  And if it doesn't blow up, your peeps are the only thing that will get you through.  Cultivate community. DO IT. 

3.  I'll let you in on a crazy secret: there are cultures and traditions in the world that have suffered a lot, and they have mastered the fine art of facing crisis.  Look up "pleasure activism" and "misery resistance," for example.  Read Adrienne Maree Brown's book, Emergent Strategy.  It will change your whole worldview, if you're not already on board with her schtick.  Think you're the first generation to suffer and freak out about the state of the world?  Read the biographies of those who came before you.  Your elders.  They've seen it all.  You live in a world of general bliss, in the relative history of shitty societies.  If anybody knows how to face the apocalypse, it's our elders.  Look to them. 

4.  Tell better stories.  Stories make worlds.  Literally.  Don't just become a meta-reader of stories, deftly deflecting declension narratives in your sleep, or thousand-hand-slapping every jeremiad that comes your way, fiercely declaring "get back you devil!"  No, you're not just a consumer, deconstructer, analyst.  You also wield the super-powers of producing, creating, constructing.   What will you do with this miracle of storytelling, which is available to all?   Actively reject doom-and-gloom narratives in your own work, organizing, and telling of the story.  

Other frames are shown to be more effective at engaging people over the long-term.  Tons of research shows that the issue of human health makes your audience care a lot more about climate change than polar bears, much less krill.  God, I love krill. Don't get me started.  The way they provide the foundation of all ocean life.  The way they are the unsung hero of all charismatic ocean critters.  How they're the bellwether of ocean health, how Brad Pitt played a krill in Happy Feet.  Breathtaking performance, don't you think?  So. Freaking. Hot.

Where was I?

Oh, right, health.  So, studies show that framing climate change not as an issue that affects Brad Pitt, I mean, krill, but rather as an issue that affects our communities, families, and loved ones, is more effective at getting more people to acknowledge it as a problem, and to overcome the barrier that climate change feels distant, in both time and space.  How can we make climate change immediate, in both geography and temporality?  If temporal and geographical distance is one of the reasons people have a hard time caring about it, apocalypse won't work.  Know anybody experiencing the effects of climate change?  Exactly.  I thought so.  Forget Brad Pitt.  Think of your daughter, neighbor, classmate, yourself.  It isn't six degrees of Kevin Bacon.   Tell better stories about climate change that show the reality of how it's affecting YOU. 

5.  Never belittle the power of imagination.  Everywhere you go, ask this question (from Brown), "what would it take to thrive in a climate changed future?"  What does a smarter, healthy, thriving, just climate-changed future look like, exactly?  Imagine it.  Just take a few minutes and imagine it.  If you find you cannot imagine it, ask yourself if you are a coward and have accepted the neoliberal doctrine that you are acting alone (see above).  Or, ask yourself if you've bought the doctrine that you have no power.  Get meta. Make new narratives. See research on "nudge" and, for starters, finish this blog post.  Rebecca Solnit will teach you that the myth of powerlessness is a curse put on you by those in power to keep you consenting to being controlled.  Get over it, for the love of the Goddess!  That's just a cop-out, and yes I'm calling you out, in a gentle, loving, maternal way.  See all above posts, read Brown and Solnit, and even Jensen, here.  GET OVER IT and GET TO WORK.  

Turns out, the radical imagination is like gold to the movement, in this day and age when the imagination has been "privatized," as Solnit puts it, by capitalism.  Check out, as just one example, how others are cultivating the imagination. It's meta. It's so fucking meta.  

Side effects of this treatment of critical thinking may include:

1.  an increased love of krill
2.  a radical awareness that you're not alone against the world, something that might be termed “collective efficacy” 
2.  mindfulness of your many blessings, such as potable water, literacy, and the beloved who always listens to you cry about how the world is going to hell, like this:

3.  increased mindfulness of simple pleasures, such as petting a cute animal or laughing at terrible blog posts, without guilt

4.  increased desire to cultivate community, friendship, and relationships with loved ones

5.  radical empathy for others' suffering and conditions of their own efforts or lack thereof

6.  development of utter immunity to and/or transcendence of negativity. Or at least, getting more meta about it.  Ugly feelings? Yeah, it's a thing. Whatever.

7.  increased stamina to stay in the movement for the long haul, not just burn out into nihilistic state of apathy and despair.  Because you actively pursue research to inoculate yourself, you've already found this amazing movie, and this one too, oh, and this one.  Movies.  Why do they matter? They tell stories. CONSUME GOOD ONES.  META.

And a whole host of other boring things that don't really matter, but which have been substantiated by research: 

  • improved sleep quality
  • better relationships
  • increased nonviolent communication skills
  • fewer self-destructive behaviors
  • improved general well-being
  • acceptance of the paradox that the world is troubled, and we have to live fully in it
  • radical imagination for thriving in a climate-changed future.
Those are things that you should put on your resume, write home about, and, seriously, put on your Tinder profile.  Nothing's hotter than a krill-loving climate justice warrior who has the patience to sit in a chair and think through all these things before raging against the machine.  Also, that's what the planet needs.